What makes FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care different from other hospice programs?
A simpler question might be, “What doesn't?”
According to Director Tina Gibbs, there is a “common perception that all hospices are alike.” But this is hardly the case with FirstHealth Hospice.
There are many differences between FirstHealth's hospice program and others, and all contribute to the quality care the program offers to patients in Moore and Montgomery counties. As the only hospice that is associated with FirstHealth of the Carolinas, FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care is not-for-profit. Its services exist solely for the benefit of its patients and the communities it serves, and it is known for providing the same level of care for which the entire FirstHealth organization has long been recognized.
“If you use a FirstHealth service, you should expect, and will receive, the same level of excellence across the system,” says Gibbs.
Hospice Campus and Staff
A first-time visitor to FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care cannot help but notice the beauty of the campus. Located on 30-plus acres of wooded, lake-front property, the Hospice campus is anchored by the 11-bed, 16,000-square-foot Hospice House, an acute-care facility for patients needing short-term pain-management and symptom control.
Patients and their families are cared for in a comfortable, home-like setting with private rooms and features that include a family kitchen, dining area and a children's play area.
Across the campus is the Administrative Building, which houses the administrative staff as well as the Grief Resource & Counseling Center. (Look for more information about the Grief Resource & Counseling Center later in this article.)
Care is provided by a staff that is highly trained and uniquely experienced and qualified. Gibbs is a master's-level trained social worker with almost 20 years of experience with the FirstHealth program. Associate Director Valerie Ellis, R.N., is a registered nurse, also with several years of hospice experience.
Medical care for FirstHealth Hospice patients is provided by a group of specially qualified and experienced medical professionals led by medical director Ellen Willard, M.D. A board certified hematologist and oncologist, Dr. Willard has worked with the hospice program for many years and also serves as medical director of the FirstHealth Outpatient Cancer Center.
The associate director is Aaron Gavett, D.O., a board certified specialist in internal medicine with a background in hospitalist medicine. Dr. Gavett provides physician coverage for 21 days of every month while three other physicians – Valerie Brown, M.D.; Van Slaughter, M.D.; and John Kerr, M.D. – cover the remaining time. All three are hospitalist physicians, and Dr. Kerr is also a trained pediatrician.
Fifteen years ago, Dr. Willard became the first physician in North Carolina to be certified in Hospice and Palliative Medicine. She was re-certified in 2012, when Drs. Gavett and Slaughter earned their certifications for the first time.
Grief Resource & Counseling Center
While all hospice programs offer some level of bereavement counseling, most offer very basic services. FirstHealth Hospice takes its bereavement programming to an advanced level with its Grief Resource & Counseling Center.
Located in the Administrative Building, the program offers understanding, support and guidance for anyone whose life has been changed by grief – whether the loss was hospice-related or not. Specially trained grief counselors offer individual, family and group sessions to those who are dealing with life-altering illness or who are facing the death of a loved one as well as to those who have already suffered a loss.
Programs and support groups are offered throughout the year, and participation can continue for as long as help is needed. In addition to the programs provided on the FirstHealth Hospice campus, services can be taken into the community – to schools, churches and even work places – in times of community loss.
During 2013, the Grief Resource & Counseling Center made more than 4,500 bereavement visits and contacts with families with a loved one in hospice care, provided 1,015 counseling sessions and offered 120 support groups with attendance totaling 950.
Hospice Chapel and Hospice Grounds
Pinehurst resident Charlie McWilliams, who chaired the fundraising effort for a chapel on the grounds of FirstHealth Hospice, describes the 1,000-square-foot building as “a dream for the whole campus.”
The nondenominational chapel, which can accommodate up to 49 seated people, is used for functions related to services provided by FirstHealth Hospice, offering a place of comfort and solace for patients and families or as a location for small services following a death.
The chapel is also open to the community through the services of the Grief Resource & Counseling Center.
The FirstHealth Hospice grounds were recently re-landscaped to incorporate the existing lake into a design that includes a labyrinth and pathways where patients, families and staff can get away from the inpatient environment and experience the peace and beauty of their outdoor surroundings.
A special feature of the Grief Resource & Counseling Center focuses on the programs offered to children and teens. In addition to one-on-one counseling sessions, these services include age-appropriate grief support groups and special events such as holiday parties and pizza and movie nights.
A highlight of the children's programming year is Camp Lost and Found, actually two age-appropriate day camps – one for young children and another for teens – that allow young people who have suffered the loss of a loved one to participate in fun activities while communicating in the shared experience of grief and loss.
One full-time chaplain, two part-time chaplains and one on-call chaplain serve patients and families through FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care. Two have been certified by the Board of Chaplaincy Certification, an affiliate of the Association of Professional Chaplains.
To be certified, a chaplain must complete a rigorous period of training and self-examination that includes 2,000 hours of chaplain work experience, various recommendations, self-evaluation, an autobiography and four extensive competency essays as well as an exacting session with a peer review committee. Maintaining the certification, which is renewable every five years, means an annual 50 hours of documented continuing education as well as fifth-year peer review.
“What better way (to serve) than to be available during such trying times,” says Twyla Nelson, an ordained Baptist minister who has been the full-time chaplain for FirstHealth Hospice since 2009.
According to Gibbs, hospice began as a volunteer movement and volunteers remain a vital part of program services. In fact, volunteer support services are required for any hospice having a Medicare license.
FirstHealth Hospice volunteers support every area of the program including administration, the Hospice House and patients in their homes.
“We're excited to be able to offer such a broad range of volunteer opportunities and continually look to identify new ways in which volunteers can enhance the services we provide,” says Volunteer Services manager Susanne Martinez.
Hospice Lending Library
FirstHealth Hospice also has its own lending library. Books, tapes, CDs and DVDs are available on numerous topics that include care-giving, grief and loss, end of life and even the afterlife.
Substitute Caregiver Program
The Substitute Caregiver Program provides temporary financial assistance to patients who meet income eligibility requirements and either lack a primary caregiver or have a caregiver who is unable to provide the necessary care. The program is designed as a temporary measure until other arrangements for care (such as placement in a long-term facility) can be made.
Families determine the amount of time they need and, with funds provided by the program, hire a qualified health care worker to provide care-giving services.
Medication Assistance Program
At times, there may be drugs that are related to a condition separate from the terminal diagnosis but are important for the patient's care and comfort. FirstHealth Hospice's Medication Assistance Program assists patients who lack the resources or insurance coverage to pay for these additional medications.
No One Is Turned Away
Perhaps the most enlightened feature of FirstHealth Hospice & Palliative Care is the fact that no one needing care is ever denied it – regardless of their ability to pay. The support of the FirstHealth Hospice Foundation assures this community pledge as well as the level of care that the program provides.
“We wouldn't have this campus and this program if not for the community and the support of the Foundation,” says Gibbs.
Even with a daily census that averages 130 to 150 patients in in-home or skilled nursing care and the 11 Hospice House beds for patients requiring advanced symptom control, patients are admitted at a time of convenience for them and their families.
“Our care is patient-specific,” Gibbs says. “It's got to be, and I am proud of the rapid time response to meet our patient and family needs. We have an excellent team of staff and volunteers, and we provide exceptional end-of-life care in the counties we serve.”